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"Hurricane" - the music of Stephen Dankner

A review of "Hurricane", the first-ever CD released by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring the music of Stephen Dankner...

World premieres always have the possibility of becoming notable events.

In 1913, Stravinsky's ballet "Le Sacre du Printemps" (The Rite of Spring) caused a riot during its Paris premiere. Fistfights broke out in the audience, shoving matches ensued, and enough commotion was raised throughout the Theatre des Champs-Elysees that the dancers had difficulty hearing the music from the orchestra pit.

To be fair to the more well-heeled members of that night's ballet audience, word of enfant terrible Stravinsky's music had buzzed about Paris in the weeks leading up to the ballet's premiere. But even the most "modern" tastes were ill-prepared for what greeted them on stage when the great curtain rose for the first performance of Le Sacre: a small of knot of young women stood well downstage, dressed in tan, buckskin wraparound loincloths. As the eerie bassoon introduction began to float up from the pit, Nijinsky's choreography kicked in, and the women, standing knock-kneed and with blank facial expressions and gaping mouths, began to make hopping motions, up and down, up and down, faster and faster, like jumping beans being gradually heated to the point of excitement. As the lights came up fully on this scene, the audience gasped. To complete the buckskin ensemble, the female dancers were topless, save for the cascading blond wigs that covered their shoulders, and much (but not all) of everything else exposed.

The reaction from the audience was swift: women screamed, men shot to their feet, programs (and jaws) dropped. Fans of Stravinsky's music tried in vain to shush the rising hubbub, but dozens of people were already shrieking, heading into the aisles, and out into the Paris night.

(In the past ninety years revisionist historians have written that there almost certainly had to be "confederates" in that opening night audience in 1913, men and women that at just the right time would leap up and begin decrying the sights before them. The sly Stravinsky and the impresario Serge Diaghilev would loved a riot to have broken out in their audience, and they may have taken steps to insure that their pre-planned chaos went off without a hitch.)

When any composer has his works premiered in front of an audience, the reaction of that audience to new sounds and new ideas is always somewhat up for grabs. Indeed, the entire notion of "new music" can spring minds shut faster than a bear trap. But when a composer is versed in both the techniques of today and comfortable with the sounds of the past, the effect of the "new" is softened - the landscape painted may be unfamiliar, but the colors, the blues and greens, and soft pinks, the gentle brush strokes and canvas, are tools that have been used for centuries.

The CD "Hurricane" marks musical firsts for both composer Stephen Dankner and for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. As the LPO celebrates its 10th anniversary season, the music of Dankner was chosen to represent New Orleans' finest musicians, and all fans of new music, for the first-ever commercial recording released by the LPO.

The new CD entitled "Hurricane" contains three works by Dankner: the colorful curtain-raiser "Hurricane", the sweeping and melodic "Concerto for Alto Saxophone", and the grand "Song of Solomon", a symphony inspired by the love poetry found in the Old Testament.

The nine-minute "Hurricane" reminds one of the Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss: still, dark silences, punctuated by the approach of a storm, a martial theme swirling in and out of rich chromatic harmonies. Structured as a continuous orchestral variation, "Hurricane" opens quietly, and then builds toward a series of percussive climaxes. Aided by a wind machine, the music reaches its zenith, and then, just as gradually, softens into the distance, clouds breaking up, an ethereal stillness returning. That is, until the final fugal section, when Mother Nature unleashes her last wrath. Then all is quiet once again. This was the format followed by Dukas in his Sorcerer's Apprentice, and it's the strength of this programmatic idea that helps Dankner unify his evolving palette into a pictorial timeline. (For New Orleanians, the adage that advises waiting fifteen minutes for new and different weather to arrive makes "Hurricane" seem as familiar and comforting as a summer storm.)

The next piece on the "Hurricane" CD is Dankner's "Concerto for Alto Saxophone", a work first premiered by Dr. Lawrence Gwozdz. The tonal vocabulary is decidedly warm and inviting, with the concerto's languorous first and third movements alternating with rapid, humorous escapades in the second and final movements. The long-breathed melodies of the opening movement give way to the second movement's comic perpetuum mobile. The third movement, marked Andante, is a nostalgic chorale reminiscent of a summertime bandstand. The concerto's finale is full of forward momentum, the solo saxophone soaring, in passages, over the orchestra with Bernstein-like brio.

The third, and final, work on this CD is the "Song of Solomon (Symphony #3)", based on translations taken from the King James version of the Song of Solomon (as well as selected texts from the Song of Songs in the Tanakh - the Jewish Publication Society Bible).

The symphony opens with echoes of Respighi and Barber, sensuous string and woodwind writing that closely follows the selected text: "...let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth - for your love is better than wine..." The opening movement contains some lovely, folk-inflected melodies - you almost feel as if you're in a 1930s black-and-white romance set in Persia: lots of sand-swept dunes, and somewhere, Ronald Colman beckoning to you from atop his camel.

As the first movement glides into the second movement, the theme of a martial procession takes over; Solomon is seen in his regal splendor, appearing as if from pillars of smoke, fanfares in the brass section heralding his arrival.

The third and final movement finds us back in the scented gardens of young lovers, the softest ping from the triangle reminding us of the symphony's opening movement. The symphony's final pages are a melodic wash of color, with strings tracing out high lines above the joyous orchestra's finale. The rising seventh in the final theme finds us in love's full, lyric bloom, the kind of love Korngold approved of, the sort of emotion that sends you out into the night singing...

James C. Arey is an announcer/producer at 89.9 WWNO in New Orleans...

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